Christians celebrate Jerusalem as the birthplace of the church, revering it as the place of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. From the earliest days, Christians have called Jerusalem Hagia Polis, Greek for the “Holy City.” (Greek was the language of the New Testament and of the early church.)
The Apostle James, “the brother of the Lord,” guided the Church of Jerusalem after Pentecost, and was stoned to death about eight years before the Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple in the year 70. After his death, 15 bishops “of the circumcision” guided the mother church until the Romans nearly annihilated the Jews and leveled what remained of Jerusalem in the year 135.
The mother church carried on in the region, keeping alive the memory, deeds and words of Jesus. The oldest complete form of the Eucharist to have survived, known as the Liturgy of St. James, developed during this period and is today used on specific feast days by the churches of the Byzantine and Syriac traditions.
While the smallest of the ancient patriarchal churches — in 451, the fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon recognized Jerusalem as a patriarchate, according its bishop a special status after Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch — the Church of Jerusalem’s reach has been extensive. Its early rites and traditions influenced those developed by the church of Antioch, from which emanated the Armenian, Byzantine, Chaldean and Syriac traditions.
Centuries of instability and economic malaise, exacerbated by the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, has eroded the Church of Jerusalem, especially the once dominant Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem. Whereas Christians once led civic, cultural and intellectual life in the region, today their influence is limited, even in the traditional centers of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Ramallah.
At the moment, the Church of Jerusalem includes about 400,000 people — Arabs primarily — scattered throughout the Holy City, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula. The vast majority of these Christians once belonged to the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Jerusalem, which now accounts for fewer than 130,000 people. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which shares the same rites traditions as the patriarchal church of Jerusalem and is in full communion with Rome, now includes about the same number of people. The rest belong to other faith communities, especially those typically associated with the West: the Latin Catholic Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Anglican and Lutheran communities.
While the revival of parish life in Romania, Russia and Ukraine — and the resurgence of pilgrims (and in Israel, immigrants) from those churches — has bolstered the Church of Jerusalem, heightening its profile, the ultimate fate of this ancient community depends on a just political resolution between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem lies at the heart of a dispute many observers believe to be at the root of the clash between the Arab Muslim and Western worlds.
Visit CNEWA’s series on the Eastern churches at easternchurches.org.